updated January 2016
TIP! Always try to barter the asking price down. If the rate card says 300,000 for an hour massage, ask for a discount and you will almost always get 50,000-100,000 off depending on your bartering skills!
Vietnamese massage is very much like Thai massage but with some minor differences. The usual massages you see are Foot Massage and Body Massage with all of its variations (Vietnamese, Oil, Herbal, Aroma, etc.). One big difference between Vietnam and its neighboring countries is that in this country, you are required to keep your underwear on or wear a pair of panties that will be provided for you.
I have had dozens of Vietnamese massages from Hanoi to Saigon. They are usually done on a proper massage table (unlike the floor or a mat which you find more commonly in Thailand or Cambodia) which gives the masseuse room to move around and massage from all directions.
You are usually required to keep your underwear on if you are a male or you will be provided with a pair of shorts by the spa (I believe there some morality laws that enforce this). The usual sequence begins with some pressure work up and down the back and legs, done with palms, fists, and fingers. Your masseuse might walk on your back and legs as well and if you have a fragile back, I’d let her know that you’d rather she didn’t.
After the warmup, the massage continues with the application of some oil to the back and upper buttocks (the underwear gets pealed back a little). Then there will be a massage on the back of the legs and sometimes the feet. She will flex your legs in a few directions to give you a stretch. There will also be some pummeling with the fists. Most of the time, the oil will get wiped off with a warm damp towel, then it’s time to turn over.
Massage continues with oil massage on the front of the legs, then a dry or oil massage on the hands and arms. The massage finishes with some work on the scalp and face (without oil). She then asks you to sit up and she works your shoulders and upper back.
Technique and skill vary from girl to girl but that’s the basic sequence. It’s hit and miss as to whether you get a really good masseuse; if you find one, keep coming back!
The massages are generally very good but unlike the other countries, you don’t usually get a tummy/chest rub or a bum massage (but you can ask!). Nevertheless, I’ve had some of my best massages in Vietnam.
Sometimes, they’ll give you a pair of undies to wear instead of your own but be prepared by wearing something you don’t mind getting some oil on. She peels back the top of the underwear to work the top of the buttock and you’ll end up with somewhat oily underwear.
If you are a man and you happen to be in a place where the masseuse is looking to give you some ‘extra’ services, the underwear isn’t going to stop her from accessing your private bits. There is sometimes a great deal of ‘accidental’ touching.
Sometimes there will be a some high pressure salesmanship by the masseuse as she tries to get to you accept a ‘baby-massa’ or happy ending. This was particularly true in Saigon. If you say ‘no’, there might be lots of pleading, sulking, and whining. Similarly, there will be a lot of sulking if the tip is too small.
If the place offers foot massages and there are lots of chairs visible at ground level, it’s probably a legitimate place.
If you are in Saigon and see something that says ‘hot toc’ massage, it might be a hair salon that offers some ‘special’ massage in the back room!
I had hot stone massage a few times, which is nice. They are quite frequently included at no extra cost in the standard massage in Da Nang. Hanoi is quite chilly in winter and in one place where there was no heat, I ordered a hot stone massage just to warm up!
I learned that if the massage is in a hotel and the massage rooms are in some upstairs place accessed by elevator, it’s likely to be a sex massage place. I fell for this in Da Nang and in Hue. In Da Nang, I ordered a V.I.P. massage which for 200,000 included some time in a sauna. This was followed by a lousy massage, a high pressure offer to give me a happy ending, followed by demands for a big tip even when I refused the extras. Not a pleasant situation.
2016 update: I find it quite annoying that Vietnamese masseuses are getting progressively worse with regard to using their cellphones during a massage. If it bothers you, let them know that you’re paying for a two-hands massage! (see: Annoyances)
I had a lot of good massages at a decent price in Hoi An. Thumbs up! More than one masseuse asked me if I was interested in marriage! The city is an attractive and inexpensive place to stay for a while and the massages are good to great. It’s one of my favorite towns in Asia, I could stay here for weeks on end. Most places are strictly legitimate and professional. I was never once asked if I wanted ‘extras’!
I splurged once and paid 450,000 VND for a massage in a fancy spa at Hoi An. The trappings were a little fancier (as in slightly nicer decor with fancy wallpaper) but the massage was no better than a 200,000 VND one.
One regional difference here is the use of some mentholated substance which the girl rubs in her palms to warm it up, then holds it under your nose for you to breathe in. This usually happens before a facial massage. She may apply the salve to your forehead or chest as well. There is also a foot bath with warm water and lemongrass/lime to soak and wash your feet in before the massage; I rarely had this anywhere else in Vietnam.
I was finally able to get the odd massage where I could take my underwear off. I had to ask, though. I got tummy rubs here, too. Sometimes you get a cloth over your eyes, I guess this is to shield you from the light but I would rather have the ability to see what’s going on and I get a bit paranoid when I can’t see my clothes.
As with anywhere, the older women (30s and 40s) are more experienced and will give you better, stronger massages.
I had some of my best massages ever in some of the massage joints near My Khe beach (aka China Beach), along the waterfront in this city. There is a cluster of 3 or 4 massage shops near the beach at the corner of Ho Xuan Wong and the beach road (Vo Nguyen Giap).
A typical body massage for an hour would include the usual skilful massage sequence as described above but it also includes a hot stone massage in the middle of the hour. A couple of the girls worked in a ‘knee’ massage, sliding their knees up and down my oiled back.
There are lots of massage shops in the city as well that are very good. Any ‘spa’ that has a ground or 2nd floor operation should be good. Beware of the massages that you need to take an elevator to, or have to go to the back of an alley.
There are lots of great massage spas here. Unfortunately, I visited Hue during the Tet holiday so most shops were closed. I did find the odd shop open, though. A hotel massage turned out to be one of the naughty places where you pay up front and go upstairs in an elevator. They wanted 200,000 dong up front.
Desperate for a massage, I handed the desk clerk the money and was escorted up to an elevator, rode up to the 9th floor and was greeted by two older masseuses. I was led into a dimly it room with a bed and a pillow. I disrobed and put on the towel. I got a groping, pinching massage with no oil, very little time on my back and a lot of attempts at pinching my genitals. This was followed by an offer to massage my ‘baby’ (the Vietnamese term for the male genital). I gave a gentle refusal saying ‘my girlfriend says I can have a massage but no ‘special massage.’ I got out of there intact but I had to give her a bit of a tip, 70,000 which I thought was very generous considering I left the hour-long massage a half hour early. She sulked.
Later, I went to the Rose Spa, where an older masseuse wanted 400,000 for a massage. I thought it would be good for that kind of money but it was no better than a regular 200,000 one.
There are loads of massage places in the old quarter of Hanoi and around Hoan Kiem lake, usually starting at 200-300,000 dong and up. One can sometimes negotiate the price down by 50,000. I just say ‘it’s cheaper on the next street.’ Most places give you legitimate massages and they’re quite good and inexpensive. As a male, I was rarely offered ‘extra’ massages (unlike Saigon!)
On a cold day in winter, hot stone massages are very pleasurable! One girl I talked to makes a 150 dollars a month, gets nothing for the massages and depends on tips for extra income. She gets to sleep on the massage beds at night. She said that of the seven massages she’d given one day, some tipped not at all, a couple 50,000, and a couple 100,000 dong.
If you like seaside towns with lots of bars, restaurants, noisy partiers, beaches, and Chinese and Russian tourists, you’ll like Nha Trang. There are loads of massage places in the tourist area. Many of the signs are in Russian as well as English and Vietnamese.
Most of the massage establishments are legitimate but beware of the really cheap places as they might offer ‘extra service’ and not much of a massage. I had a few massages in this city over a couple of days including a couple of 30 minute foot massages which were pretty mediocre. But two of the 60 minute body massages I had were actually very, very good. One I had at Lotus Spa (28 Tran Quang Khai) finished off with something new for me: a cup of tea and a container of yogurt! The massage included cleanup from the oil with nice hot moist towels. The other good massage I had was at Tigon Spa on the same street as Lotus Spa: here I had a hot towel placed over my eyes which was a nice touch. Both of these were very professional.
Another massage shop on the main street that had the incredibly low price of 120,000 VND got me curious. It didn’t look a seedy sort of place and there were chairs with footbaths for foot massages, so I asked for a 60 minute body massage. My masseuse turned out to be a young blind woman. Her English was pretty good and it was an enjoyable hour, not so much because of the massage (which was good but not great) but we had an interesting conversation.
For a tourist destination, you’d think there would be a lot more massage establishments but alas, I could find no more than a half dozen in the whole city, and that’s including a couple of naughty VIP/Steam/Sauna Massages. I did try out one: Rosy Spa at the north end of town at 10/1 Phu Dong Thien Vuong (250,000 VND for a one hour body massage). It was a very clean and professionally run establishment. Here I experienced two things I’d never run into at any other of my massages: a questionnaire getting my basic information and medical issues if any, and secondly, a heating pad in the massage table (which was nice). No chit-chat here, just massage. Hot moist towels were used for oil cleanup. Another, in town, Le Quy Spa, has some high ratings but unfortunately, it was closed when I was there. I had some friends go there a week later and they said it was a very good spa, reasonable rates and very professional.
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
If you want a real massage without any sexual extras, you will probably need to go to a slightly higher priced spa. Otherwise, be very clear with the girl you’re talking to about what you want (or don’t want) in your massage.
I love HCMC but my experiences with massage here weren’t always pleasant, at least in the District 1 neighborhood I was exploring. I found that many of the masseuses were quite aggressive, trying to push ‘extras’ on me. I was accosted by several young girls on the street passing out cards and pamphlets with prices for various kinds of massages on them. They were young and cute and didn’t do the massages themselves. Their job was to pass out flyers. Other girls on the street who looked quite seductive with short shorts and generally sexy clothing, tried to get me to come inside to upstairs massage places. These, I hear, would all end up in happy endings or more.
Prices varied from 7 dollars and up. I went to one place that advertised Thai style massage and asked for an oil massage which was 13 dollars. The girl was a lousy masseuse and it felt more like 45 minutes rather than an hour and upon finishing, I was presented with a small card that said: ‘Suggested tip: Good $6, Very Good $8, Excellent $10’. Highway robbery! Not only was the massage crappy but they had the nerve to ask for a big tip besides! I gave her a couple of dollars and she started crying (undoubtedly an act). It was a surprisingly busy place. She used not more a thimbleful of oil on me.
Another girl tried to give me a ‘baby massa’ (local terminology for a ‘happy ending’) and I said I didn’t want one. She was very insistent and got sulky when I left.
I was only in Saigon for three days but I didn’t get a very good impression of the masseuses of District 1. I guess I need to spend more and get into the fancy spas!